Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘BookScan

Why every sale counts

with 4 comments

The author's third novel

I don’t often make a direct sales pitch on this blog—in fact, I don’t think I’ve ever done so, although I’m not above hyping my work in as many indirect ways as I can—but today, I’m going to break that rule. Ready? Here it is:

If you enjoy reading this blog, you might also want to pick up a copy of my novel Eternal Empire.

You know what? That actually felt pretty good. I don’t ever intend to turn this blog solely into a vehicle for promoting myself: I’ve seen too many writers whose Twitter feeds consist entirely of links to their book’s Amazon page, as if that were a legitimate sales tactic. (Trust me—it isn’t.) Yet since this is the day that Eternal Empire arrives in stores, I’m not just going to relax this rule, I’m going to talk a little about why sales matter so much to a writer like me. And it may not be for the reason that you think. 

If you know something about publishing, you’re probably aware that the bulk of a writer’s income doesn’t come from direct sales of his or her books. Prior to the book’s release, the writer signs a contract providing him with an advance, installments of which are paid on signing, on delivery, and on publication. An advance is pretty much what it sounds like: a portion of the royalties due to a writer paid up front, ideally to be made up later by sales. At least in theory. In practice, most books don’t earn out their advances, which means that this is the only money a writer ever sees. (If you’re lucky, you’ll get additional income from things like foreign rights, but that’s not something you can ever count on.) As a result, this generally means that the money from any one sale doesn’t go directly to the author, but to the publisher. Even if I “earn” a dollar or so from every copy sold of one of my books, I don’t see that money until the advance earns out, and when a novel is first released, that breakeven point starts to look an awfully long way in the future. 

The author's third novel

But every sale still counts, and not just because they’re inching me incrementally toward the day when I can start to earn additional royalties. In the short term, book sales are a point system—a way of keeping score. They tell Barnes & Noble how long to keep a book on display, which is a crucial consideration at a time when turnover is incredibly high. Within a publishing house, it’s a metric of an author’s future potential, and it helps determine the resources your next book receives. And if you ever go out to other publishers—as I happen to be doing right this minute—you can bet that they’ll check your Bookscan numbers before deciding whether or not to make an offer. It may not seem like a single sale can make much of a difference, but it really does: it’s a point in an author’s favor, proof that someone out there thought his work was worth buying, and when taken in the aggregate, it’s information that plays an enormous practical role. The money isn’t important; it’s that constantly updated score that has the potential to directly affect an author’s life. 

So I’ll say it once more, and I promise not to say it again. If you’ve enjoyed this blog, and especially if you’re one of those readers—and I love you—who spend a lot of time here, I’d like you to seriously consider picking up a copy of Eternal Empire or The Icon Thief or City of Exiles. I think they’re pretty good books, and they might even help you enjoy this blog all the more: I plan to start a detailed commentary on City of Exiles later this week, and I hope do the same for every novel I write. They’ll also give you a bit of perspective on any tidbits of advice, wisdom, or opinion I share. Nothing of what I’ve written here counts for much if I’m not also a writer whose work stands on its own merits, and the best way to judge this for yourself is to check it out at the source. Most of all, I’ve invested a lot of time into making these novels as interesting and entertaining as I can: without exception, they’ve always been books I wanted to read, and I’ve been lucky to get the chance to see them take physical shape. I sure as hell want to keep doing it. And every little bit makes a difference.

Written by nevalalee

September 3, 2013 at 8:26 am

Posted in Books, Publishing, Writing

Tagged with ,

What I learned from my first novel

with 8 comments

Five months ago, my novel The Icon Thief was published by Penguin, and if it seemed at the time like the end of a journey, I see clearly now that it was just the beginning of another. In many ways, the most challenging part of the past year has been adjusting my survival skills as a writer, which had been built up by years of mostly solitary work, to the realities of living with a book in actual stores. And the transition hasn’t always been easy. Daniel Kahneman, the Nobel Prize-winning author of Thinking, Fast and Slow, likes to talk about optimistic bias—the delusion that we ourselves are more likely to succeed where countless others have failed—and it’s especially endemic among aspiring writers, who are required by definition to be irrationally optimistic. Every unpublished novel is a potential bestseller, just as every unwritten page is a potential masterpiece, and learning to live with a real physical book, which won’t always live up to your expectations, is something every writer needs to learn. Here, then, are some lessons that the past few months have taught me:

1. Promotion is great, but placement is better. When The Icon Thief came out, I did everything I could to transform myself from an obsessive introvert, which is basically what every writer has to become in order to finish a book in the first place, to a tireless promoter who could sell his book in person, in print, and in all other media. What I’ve since learned is that while such activities can be gratifying for their own sake, and will sell books here and there, they generally don’t have a lasting effect on a novel’s success. What sells most books, aside from word of mouth, is placement: do readers see the book when they go into stores? Every instance of placement in the big national chains—whether a book is on the front table, in the new releases section, or in a display where browsers are likely to notice it—is a chance to reach that precious audience of readers who are actively looking for something to buy. It’s by far the largest factor in a debut novel’s early sales—more than advertising, more than promotion. And it’s something that is ultimately out of the writer’s hands.

2. Don’t sweat the numbers. During the first week of my novel’s release, like any writer with a pulse, I was checking my Amazon sales ranking every hour. After a while, I was down to every day, then every week, and now I look only rarely, if ever. The same goes with BookScan figures and other measures of the book’s sales: I used to dutifully look over the charts every Friday and wonder why sales were spiking in Houston but flat in Boise, Idaho. In time, though, I found that I was falling into the same trap of those who have plenty of data but not enough real information: I was reading too much into tiny fluctuations and seeing patterns that weren’t there. In the end, such noise only serves as a distraction from the real business of writing, which involves a lot of diligent labor without reference to how your book is doing in Baton Rouge. In the old days, writers would receive sales figures from their publishers on a quarterly or semiannual basis, and I’d argue that they were better off. Turn off the numbers—you’ll be happier in the end.

3. Play the long game. Last month, I learned that my longtime editor at Penguin, who had acquired The Icon Thief and its sequel almost two years ago, was leaving to take another job. At first, I was rocked by the news, but my agent wisely pointed out that the timing here—with one book already out in stores, the second locked and ready to go, and a third a few months from completion—was about as good as it could get, and that changing editors is something that happens to every writer at one point or another. And he was right. Unless you’re the kind of author who has exactly one book to write, you’re going spend the rest of your career in the writing game, which is just like anything else in life: the same ups and downs happen to everyone, but not necessarily in the same order. When you take the long view, you find that the rules of engagement haven’t really changed from when you were first starting out: you’re still writing for yourself and a few ideal readers. And the more you keep that in mind, the better chance you have of coming out the other end alive.

Written by nevalalee

August 15, 2012 at 10:18 am

Googling the rise and fall of literary reputations: the sequel

with 2 comments

After playing over the weekend with the new word frequency tool in Google Books, I quickly came to realize that last week’s post barely scratched the surface. It’s fun to compare novelists against other writers in the same category, for example, but what happens when we look at authors in different categories altogether? Here’s what we get, for instance, when we chart two of the most famous literary authors of the latter half of the century against their counterparts on the bestseller list:

The results may seem surprising at first, but they aren’t hard to understand. Books by Philip Roth and John Updike might be outsold by Harold Robbins and Jacqueline Susann in their initial run (the occasional freak like Couples or Portnoy’s Complaint aside), but as they enter the canon, they’re simply talked about more often, by other writers, than their bestselling contemporaries. (Robbins and Susann, by contrast, probably aren’t cited very often outside their own books.) Compared to the trajectory of a canonical author, the graph of a bestseller begins to look less like a mountain and more like a molehill—or a speed bump. But now look here:

Something else altogether seems to be at work in this chart, and it’s only a reminder of the singularity of Stephen King’s career. Soon after his debut—Carrie, ‘Salem’s Lot, The Shining, and The Stand were all published within the same five years—King had overtaken the likes of Robbins and Susann both on the bestseller lists and in terms of cultural impact. Then something even stranger happened: he became canonical. He was prolific, popular, and wrote books that were endlessly referenced within the culture. As a result, his graph looks like no other—an appropriately monstrous hybrid of the bestselling author and serious novelist.

So what happens when we extend the graph beyond the year 2000, which is where the original numbers end? Here’s what we see:

A number of interesting things begin to happen in the last decade. Robbins and Susann look more like speed bumps than ever before. King’s popularity begins to taper off just as he becomes officially canonical—right when he receives lifetime achievement honors from the National Book Awards. And Roth and Updike seem to have switched places in 2004, or just after the appearance of The Plot Against America, which marks the peak, so far, of Roth’s late resurgence.

Of course, the conclusions I’ve drawn here are almost certainly flawed. There’s no way of knowing, at least not without looking more closely at the underlying data, whether the number of citations of a given author reflects true cultural prominence or something else. And it’s even harder to correlate any apparent patterns—if they’re actually there at all—with particular works or historical events, especially given the lag time of the publishing process. But there’s one chart, which I’ve been saving for last, which is so striking that I can’t help but believe that it represents something real:

This is a chart of the novelists who, according to a recent New York Times poll, wrote the five best American novels of the past twenty-five years: Toni Morrison (Beloved), Don DeLillo (Underworld), John Updike (Rabbit Angstrom), Cormac McCarthy (Blood Meridian), and Philip Roth (American Pastoral). The big news here, obviously, is Morrison’s amazing ascent around 1987, when Beloved was published. It isn’t hard to see why: Beloved was the perfect storm of literary fiction, a bestselling, critically acclaimed novel that also fit beautifully into the college curriculum. Morrison’s decline in recent years has less to do, I expect, with any real fall in her reputation than with a natural settling to more typical levels. (Although it’s interesting to note that the drop occurs shortly after Morrison received the Nobel Prize, thus locking her into the canon. Whether or not this drop is typical of officially canonized authors is something I hope to explore in a later post.)

It might be argued, and rightly so, that it’s unfair to turn literary reputation into such a horse race. But such numbers are going to be an inevitable part of the conversation from now on, and not just in terms of citations. It’s appropriate that Google unveiled this new search tool just as Amazon announced that it was making BookScan sales numbers available to its authors, allowing individual writers to do what I’m doing here, on a smaller and more personal scale. And if there’s any silver lining, it’s this: as the cases of Robbins and Susann remind us, in the end, sales don’t matter. After all, looking at the examples given above, which of these graphs would you want?

%d bloggers like this: